[Photo Courtesy: Drama Wallah Invasion]
The play “Invasion!”—written by Swedish playwright and author Jonas Hassen Khemiri and presented by Drama Wallah Production—recently completed a limited engagement at the Theater for the New City in New York.
“Invasion!” was an experience for the actors as well as the audience—it centered around the way people of South Asian and Middle Eastern origins have been seen and treated like “others” in the post 9/11 world.
Actor and playwright Aman Soni, along with Director Hafiz Karmali and the cast, founded Drama Wallah. Made up of a group of international artists, Drama Wallah’s mission is simply to explore world theater, in the same way, a chai wallah would explore the variety of ways in which one can make chai. Drama Wallah intends to further this mission by experimenting with the aesthetics, performance style, and language of theater.
“Invasion!” was the company’s first production, and the cast, which was comprised of four actors: Jackson Goldberg, 23, Gopal Divan, 29, Mahima Saigal, 23, and Soni, 22. Each actor played several characters in the play—and had unique perspectives on the play’s themes and representations.
“We are all imprisoned in a society where difference is automatically categorized as ‘less’ or ‘bad.’ But we all have secrets and subversive thoughts—it’s part of what makes us human. Khemiri’s play highlights the distinction between conformity and unity in society,” Goldberg said.
The concept of the “other” is explored within the play in a variety of ways—yet it still manages to invade your senses with the racial and ethnic stereotypes that follow distinct groups of people in Western societies around the world. The primary way in which the “other” is represented is through “Abdulkasem,” which slowly becomes clear to the audience.
“I think the viewers would recognize a part of themselves in ‘Abdulkasem.’ It would be a mirror that would reflect their conceptions about how they think about the ‘other’ and [how] others think about them[selves]” Soni explained.
“Abdulkasem” is the mysterious name that appears throughout the play in a variety of forms. “Invasion!” takes this name and gives it a fluid meaning—simultaneously naming everyone and no one. The word itself starts as a name, becomes a concept, transforms into an identity, and ultimately reflects an experience that is unique to South Asians and those of Middle-Eastern descent.
“The audience gets that, they get the concept that one word can have plural meanings over time and a fluctuating impact,” Divan explained.
“It captures not only the stereotypes imposed on the people of color, but it also deals with every human being’s irrational fear of the ‘other,'” Saigal added.
“Invasion!” doesn’t necessarily comment on why these racial and ethnic stereotypes relating to South-Asians and Middle Easterners continue to persist, nor does it depict every type of stereotype—but it does hit the audience with the sense that the perception of the “other” is very real. It also reflects on the ways prejudice can and does affect the way those of different origins are perceived within Western society.
“Invasion is about everyday news,” Soni said. “Just as we were remembering the lives lost on 9/11 and hoping for steps towards a more peaceful world, Inderjit Singh Mukker gets brutally beaten up in Chicago because of his turban and his beard. He gets called Osama, and is asked to go back home. Hate crimes against the people of South Asia and the Middle East have become a common activity in the country since 9/11. I personally have lots of friends who distance themselves from their religious and cultural affiliations to fit in the status quo. My friend Ali suddenly becomes Al. My Sikh uncle in Canada suddenly gets a haircut and becomes clean shaved because he wants passengers to feel safe in his taxi.”
After seeing the play, one cannot forget that “otherness” can be found anywhere, and because of that, there is a little bit of “Abdulkasem” in all of us.
The cast, fervent in their desire to connect with their audience as well as their own characters, made “Invasion!” all the more alluring. The play itself was witty, humorous, and even bittersweet at times—such as in a scene in which an apple picker of Arabic descent is tragically (and comedically) misinterpreted by a translator. The scene notably stayed away from pointing fingers and making judgments towards the perpetrators, who perpetuate stereotypes and racism. This refreshing perspective, along with a unique cast, made “Invasion!” a successful depiction of Khemiri’s play.